Protests in Boston against a limited U.S. strike in Syria

Protests in Boston against a limited U.S. strike in Syria Michael Dwyer/AP

Why Isolationism Is Back in America

The United States' mixed record on military interventions, coupled with an inherent skepticism of foreign involvement, has cooled any appetite towards a strike in Syria. By Ronald Brownstein

For nearly a decade, from Bill Clinton’s first-term moves into Haiti and Bosnia through George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, the current of American foreign policy moved steadily toward greater tolerance of military intervention abroad. The division, ambivalence, and hesitation in both parties about intervening in Syria culminate a subsequent decade that has almost completely reversed this tide.

The unease about military action in Syria has many roots. But its core is a diminished faith that U.S.-led military actions can produce benefits that exceed their costs, especially in the Middle East.

The Soviet Union’s offsetting power constrained Washington’s appetite for intervention during the Cold War, but since then, the U.S. posture has evolved through three phases. In the first, President George H.W. Bush remained skeptical about committing American forces for purposes beyond direct security threats (such as Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990) and mostly rejected humanitarian causes (such as combating rising ethnic violence in Bosnia). His successor chafed against, but accepted, that attitude during his first months in the White House (ironically, in part because Clinton was burned by the “Blackhawk Down” disaster that struck the military force Bush had sent to stabilize chaotic Somalia). Clinton, to his later regret, looked away from the genocide in Rwanda and vacillated on Bosnia.

Then the cycle shifted in 1994, when Clinton deployed a military force that persuaded Haiti’s junta to abdicate. The next year he finally launched a NATO bombing campaign against Serbia that prompted a Bosnian peace agreement. In 1999, together with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Clinton engineered another NATO bombing campaign that stopped ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

These victories, won with astoundingly few allied casualties, fueled confidence among “liberal hawks” that military force could spread human rights and democracy. It was Blair who most memorably consecrated these attitudes in a 1999 Chicago speech, in which he invoked “a new doctrine of international community.” He insisted: “We are all internationalists now, whether we like it or not…. We cannot turn our backs on … the violation of human rights within other countries if we want still to be secure.”

George W. Bush and his neoconservative advisers advanced from this beachhead, adding a preference for unilateral American action unshackled from the constraints of international consensus. In Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush launched invasions justified on security and humanitarian grounds. Flush with both incursions’ early success, he memorably pledged, in his second inaugural, a campaign (albeit not necessarily by military means) dedicated to universalizing freedom and “ending tyranny in our world.”

These expansive visions of America’s reach always faced skepticism. Polls showed the public initially cool to most of these intercessions, and resistance persisted across party lines (the House, for instance, deadlocked on a resolution to support the Kosovo bombing). Yet within both parties’ national leadership, intervention retained a decisive mass of support, as each military success provided the momentum for the next attempt.

That cycle started unwinding almost immediately after Baghdad fell. In Iraq and Afghanistan, it proved far easier to topple tyrannical regimes than to end violence, seed democracy, or even instill order. President Obama’s more-reluctant moves to depose autocratic rulers in Libya (through allied bombing) and Egypt (with a diplomatic nudge) reinforced the message. Each experience deepened the conviction that in the Middle East, “even well-intended interventions don’t work out,” notes James B. Steinberg, a former top national security adviser to Clinton and Obama.

This downward spiral, the third phase of attitudes about intervention, shapes the Syria debate. The past decade’s reversals have culled the liberal-hawk strain not only among American Democrats but also in the U.K, where Blair’s Labor Party opposed Syrian intervention en masse. Among American conservatives, GOP Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham wave the Bush-era banner when they demand an expanded campaign to topple Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. But former House Speaker Newt Gingrich came closer to the Right’s new consensus when he declared recently, “It may be that our capacity to export democracy is a lot more limited than we thought.”

The irony is that Obama plainly shares Gingrich’s skepticism: He is proposing constrained military action against Syria not to overthrow Assad or even primarily to protect civilians. Instead, Obama is narrowly defending the international norm against the use of chemical weapons, and he is seeking to discourage other rogue nations from employing them. Obama’s doubts about Washington’s ability to spread freedom through force more closely track the elder Bush’s Greatest Generation caution than the missionary baby-boomer optimism of Clinton, Blair, and Bush II.

Steinberg, now dean of Syracuse University’s Maxwell School, argues Syria is an especially tough case politically because specific frustration with the Middle East compounds the broader cooling toward humanitarian intervention. Humanitarian arguments, he adds, will likely persuade Congress less than the “realist case” that sparing Assad would embolden rogue states like Iran. Even if Congress backs Obama, this debate’s real lesson is the U.S. has come full circle—and is again focused more on the risks than the rewards of remaking complex societies at gunpoint.

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